Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin And Kreuzberg
Built between 1927 and 1929 as the biggest department store in Europe, Karstadt designed by Philip Schafer was a colossus and a beauty in one.
With its 70,000 m2, 7 floors and the front that reached 32 metres above the pavement it attracted as many clients as it did curious visitors who wanted to see for themselves what others were only talking about it. However, what made the department store truly unique, truly – well – outstanding were its two 11-storey towers that rose 56 metres above the city!
After dark, their “Lichtsäule” or light spires transformed the neighbourhood into an almost fairy-tale landscape.
Why did anyone decide to build something so stupendous in a part of Berlin which, to put it delicately, might not have seemed like the best location for a luxury shopping empire? There were two reasons for that: before WW2 both Kottbusser Damm and Berg-/Berliner Strasse (today Karl-Marx-Strasse in Berlin-Neukölln) were one of the best shopping addresses in Germany´s capital and nothing if not elegant addresses to live at as well.
Also, after in 1925/26 the houses and the amusement park standing at the western end of Hermannplatz were torn down to make space for the new U-bahn lines and an important line junction (lines U7 and U8 today), Karstadt owners bought the plot along with a generous piece of Hasenheide Street to make sure everything fits nicely. With tens of thousands of passengers daily and direct access from many other areas in Berlin thanks to the new tube connection, Hermannplatz was about to receive a big boost. One could hardly wish for a better location!
The construction had to begin as soon as the underground lines were ready – the new department store was to be given it own tunnel for the clients to be able to enter the shop directly from the U-Bahn platforms. The today no longer used Karstadt Tunnel was planned from the very beginning.
The topping up ceremony or Richtfest took place in 1928: the 32-metre high ferro-concrete skeleton and both 56-metre high towers were ready. Soon they were dressed in shell limestone plates and the whole took on the aesthetics of the typical skyscrapers of the day.
On the opening day in June 1929 – the 21st of June to be exact – the department store became the object of envy among the people of the trade and of awe among its visitors.
The four entrances – the main one in Hermannplatz, one in Hasenheide Street and in Urbanstrasse respectively plus the tunnel mentioned above led the guests into a real temple of luxury and commerce. The groundfloor housed three departments: stationary products, bookshop and everything that a gentleman might need (gentlemen, both then and today, have been known for their reluctance to enter shops that cannot be left immediately without having to circumnavigate the building). To keep it simple and “manly”, the interior was furnished with plenty of matt walnut-tree wood.
The 1t floor with its elegant polished mahogany as the background and material for some of the furnishings offered clothes, fabrics and shoes. And since a lady knew well that no dress and no footwear can make her look gorgeous if her hair wasn´t right, the visitors could use the services of one of three hairdressing salons there: a marble one for the gents, Schleiflack (wood painted over with varnishe and then rubbed rough to give it nice texture) for the ladies. Children´s salon was decorated with original wall paintings.
After one´s attire was finally spotless and every single hair on one´s head was pointing in the desired direction, the next floor invited for a little break. The customers and visitors – you didn´t need to buy anything to be able to spend money on a tasty Schnitzel or a generous helping of Eisbein – could replenish their energy stocks at Weltstadt-Restaurant sitting 500. Interior made of hand-picked Padukholz (padauk wood) with inlays…
If the 2nd floor restaurant should have been a disappointment or not really to one´s taste, then the next storey invited the guests to take their place among the lemon-tree wood surroundings (“mit Nußbaumprofilen”) in the cosy interior sitting 380. It seems there was really no way of avoiding having a meal at Karstadt then.
From the 4th floor where even more tiring shopping was awaiting the guests, they needed to go no further than to the floor No. 5 in case they were planning to cook something themselves after all. Unlike today, the food department of Karstadt was almost on top of the building instead of in the basement where it is now. The bottom level of the department store was not empty or utilised as a storage, however: it used to house a reasonably priced Badeanstalt or a bath house used most of all by the working class families from the neighbouring Rixdorf (Berlin-Neukölln today).
The 6th foor was closed to the visitors: this is where the brain and the heart of Karstadt had their home. The management, staff rooms and the employees´canteen could be found here.
But there was one more level that could be accessed by the guests of the house and was accessed en masse. Karstadt Hermannplatz had the most famous roof garden in town. Designed to sit up to 500 the roof Café became one of the favourite meeting spots for Berliners from every corner of the city. Placed between the two stupendous towers, which were also open for visitors, it offered concerts almost every afternoon of the week. Dancing was a big hit, too: it´s hard to imagine what it felt like to be swinging slowly above the roofs of Rixdorf and Kreuzberg. And the view from the store´s roof was surely nothing if not breathtaking.
Today the department store is gone: gone are the three Lichthöfe reaching up to the roof, gone the 24 customers´ lifts, 8 goods lifts and the thirteen “dumb butlers”. The Karstadt that is standing there might have its own, new elevators but it will never have the car lift that took delivery lorries up to the food department in the 5th floor to save time and make the unloading easier.
The new Karstadt is certain to have a proper sprinkler system and follow all fire prevention regulations very closely but already the old one could pride itself on its sprinklers and the extremely well designed Drenscher-Anlage (in case of a fire, the building was divided into independent sectors so it was possible to cut those affected by the flames off from those that were not burning). That means that a tragedy like the one that befell The Henderson´s Department Store in Liverpool in 1960 could not have happened in the 1930s Hermannplatz.
Keeping just the right temperature in the building was not a problem for the old Karstadt either. This job was done by an extremely clever air-conditioning system which allowed its administrator to differentiate temperatures inside the house almost at will. If a room needed cooling – like the food department, for instance – it was kept cool. If a room needed to feel a bit cosier (for example where the changing rooms were), the system could provide the necessary warmth as well. The total of 6 kilometres of lines took care of the right ambiance in almost every little corner of Karstadt at Hermannplatz. Even the shop windows were part of the system and could have been kept cool if need be (rather important if those were edible goods that were on display there).
This ultra-modern form of air-conditioning was an unheard of feat of engineering. You have to remember that in 1929 most of the households were still using ice blocks to refrigerate their food.
All this came to an end on April 25th, 1945 when the SS (Schutzstaffel or Defence Corps) decided to blow up the whole complex in order to make things more difficult for the Red Army slowly but surely forcing its way through Germany´s capital. Allegedly there were still enough interesting goods at the department store which could have been of use to the Soviets and the building itself could have been turned into a perfect base for attacking the neighbourhood.
An alternative version of this story exists which prefers to put the blame on the aforementioned Red Army where Karstadt´s demise is concerned. However appealing that version might be, it is rather unlikely: at the time of the explosions the Red Army was not in the “´hood” yet.
The old Karstadt at Hermannplatz was born under an unlucky star: not sooner had it been opened for business than the world crisis hit and made 1929 a very bad year indeed for such big-scale enterprises. In less than a year it became obvious that the department store was simply too big.
In 1933 two floors were closed down and more than 2,000 (!) people made redundant. At the same time, the management was reluctant to fire its Jewish employees, whom the Nazis wished to see jobless already in the run up to the introduction of Nuremberg Laws (1935). The management gave in when threatened to be cut off from any new bank loans which the shop desperately needed to keep the cash-flow alive.
The war brought the final blow: most floors were closed down completely and the rest was taken over by Heereskleidungsamt (Army Clothing Office). After the SS blew up the once biggest department store in Europe (today KaDeWe can bring “only” 60,000m2 on the scales), all was left were some of the lift shafts or hoistways and a tiny bit of the good old thing in Hasenheide Street.
So if you want to get the taste of the “real” Karstadt at Hermannplatz, enter the building through the entrance Hasenheide and having passed the post office to your left, slowly walk up the stairs behind it. And somewhere around the 2nd or 3rd floor you will see it: the old staircase as it was. If you ever dreamt of finding yourself inside the time machine, this might be your chance.
Just be careful not to bother any guests passing you by in their chiffon summer dresses, well-cut suits or fur-rimmed autumn coats on their way up to another concert or another afternoon of slow swinging in the cafe on the roof…
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